Five of Seven; or How a University Continued to Find Itself in a Women's Volleyball Team

David McGee/Corn Nation

It's entirely possible that there is but one university on the planet so obsessed with a sport like women's volleyball, and it's in own strange way, that's kind of perfect.

There are some sports fans, and of course I count myself prominently in this group, who have a natural inclination towards pessimism. Anything that can go wrong, we believe, necessarily will. A win isn't a win until the game's over, unless it's the other team's win, in which case you can sense the loss from the opening tip/kick/pitch, with an imminent sense of dread that will occasionally subside, but never too far out of mind, never beyond that pit in your stomach or that lump in your throat that trembles with every point for the opposition, that throbs when they've captured the momentum, that radiates outwards with pain and vulnerability the second you start to relinquish the false confidence you've co-opted to keep it buried. We hit the panic button early, and we panic like the world's ending.

And so it was towards the end of the fourth set, as Deja McClendon's spikes found only Wisconsin blockers, as potential kill after potential kill from a towering front line led by a 6-foot-6 ginger amazon was met only with spectacular dig after spectacular dig, as the underdog found its footing and its own poise and tenacity and the honest conviction that they could win that set, that they could take the momentum into the fifth, that they could pull off the comeback and win the championship and take down the big bad Penn State dynasty before it got restarted, that they could shift the balance of power in the Big Ten and the nation, that those of us especially prone to sports-onset anxiety went to that terrifying place of DEFCON-5 in our minds, sure that even women's volleyball, like everything else, would let us down in the end.

But Micha Hancock is not one of us.

It's now a nigh-universally-ridiculed cliche that one shouldn't talk about a sport unless they've played it at the highest level, a platitude proffered by struggling athletes who find themselves a source of fan and media criticism, or by ex-jocks who offer little more than even more platitudes in their analysis. But there is something to be said for the appeal to expertise, for the suggestion that mere mortals like you or I have nothing to add to the story of the glory of our athletic heroes. I could never imagine being where Micha Hancock was, doing what she had to do, knowing that the set, the match, the championship, the hopes of so many rested on me doing what I do best, what I might well have been put on this earth to do, what I have spent thousands upon thousands of hours training to do and hoping, no, praying that I could have that opportunity to prove it, to be the one with the game in my hands, and, what's more, following through and providing to so many the release of ebullient joy that this inconsequential exercise so often promises and so rarely delivers.

These are the things we simulate in our backyard, or play out while we sleep: nailing the game-winning three as the clock expires, hitting a grand slam, down three, in the bottom of the ninth. Getting to serve, down two, in a crucial fourth set, one that threatens to hold with it the balance of the title, as what was a daunting 2-0 lead seems perched on the precipice of defeat, perilous, fraught with uncertainty and panic and fear, and coming up with a four-nothing run to close it all out, picking up a dynasty where a senior class that had never known anything but had left it.

In short, Micha Hancock, congratulations and thank you for living out the dream we never dreamed but now maybe wish we had.

That's the thing about women's volleyball, and about Penn State, really. How many of us, before stepping foot on campus, thought we'd ever spend a Saturday night watching an Olympic sport on ESPN2? That we would be able to explain to our skeptical friends and family members the intricacies of the libero position? That we could recount, in fine, sepia-toned, detail, past matches and bygone heroes? And yet, here we were, filling up Twitter feeds and gamethreads with the love for our university that radiates outward to anything she touches, but especially anywhere she excels, and there is no better symbol of our best than the program Russ Rose has pieced together in the unlikeliest of places, the program that eschews descriptors like "dominant" and "dynastic" because they are fundamentally too introspective. The best thing about Penn State women's volleyball is not that it has now won six national championships, and five of the past seven. The best thing about Penn State women's volleyball is that it has managed to transplant a "football culture" of devoted worship onto an obscure, non-revenue sport that few of us could have ever imagined loving.

But we love, and we love earnestly and unconditionally, because we are Penn State, and because that is what we do. We love our random teams like we love the world's largest student-run philanthropy, like we love our mailman, like we will love, when it happens in a few years, the fact that a group of Penn Staters made it to the freaking moon. In a strange sense, perhaps the insulation and isolation that had always been bubbling under the surface and then finally consumed us all two years ago had its perks, too: when we circled the wagons out of sheer necessity, we came together in a way few schools have ever had to, and in doing so realized just how to honor and consecrate what makes us great, what makes us special. And for all the marketing dollars that surely went into it and the derisiveness it's earned, One Team is, more than its designers could have ever imagined, a pretty apt way to describe the Nittany Lion student body, alumni base, and global community.

But today, there's only one team that matters. And so today, we thank and celebrate a group of seniors who bookended their college careers with national titles, and we dare the underclassmen to follow in that legacy. We commemorate perhaps the greatest coach in any sport today, who, one day--perhaps one day soon--will no longer lend his perpetually dour countenance, baggy sweater, and unflappable demeanor to the Penn State sideline. We thank them all for being the kinds of champions we needed to capture not our fascinations but our hearts, and maybe, even for the most anxious among us, our faith.

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